Right now might be the time to acquaint yourself with a legal doctrine called “qualified immunity.” This doctrine provides many government officials (and legal authorities like police officers) with conditional immunity while they are on the job. When acting in an official capacity, these government officials must still act in line with federal laws and without infringing on a person’s constitutional rights. Otherwise, they can legally do pretty much whatever they like.
Qualified immunity has been on the books ever since 1967, when the Supreme Court decided to set the precedent.
The law was very blatantly not meant to protect those who willingly — and knowingly — broke state or federal laws. Ignorance is not a defense, either. The purpose of the law was equally as blatant: qualified immunity should only protect those whose decisions were sensible based on the information they had at the time, even if the judgments in question were unsound or unreasonable after enough time had passed to acquire new and enlightening information.
But the law has recently come under fire because it is increasingly used to protect law enforcement from outrageously criminal actions — such as shooting a child or pilfering money while on the job. How those actions could possibly fall under the umbrella of qualified immunity is anyone’s guess, but the legal defense worked in court. That’s what matters, and that’s what makes the doctrine so disturbing in the modern era.
Many opponents of qualified immunity suggest that it creates the ideal environment for corruption to run rampant, and prevents the accused from being held accountable for their obviously illegal actions.
A 61-year old named Alexander Baxter was confronted in January 2014 by two police officers and a police dog. When Baxter surrendered to police, the court documents say, the officers decided to play it “safe” by sending the dog to incapacitate him first. He says it was a violation of his constitutional rights, especially because he was seriously injured when the dog bit his armpit.
Naturally, attorneys for the accused officers say that they never saw Baxter surrender. More disturbingly, perhaps, they argued that it shouldn’t even matter whether he did or didn’t, because he had broken into someone’s home.
Now, qualified immunity could once again come under fire because of the altercation and subsequent lawsuit.
Vice President Clark Neily of the criminal justice think tank Cato Institute said, “If you don’t know you’re not allowed to steal somebody’s stuff while you’re executing a warrant, well, then maybe you shouldn’t be wearing a badge.”
Sadly, qualified immunity might be rescinded not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it doesn’t actually protect officials from litigation that costs taxpayers.